The BBC Horizons had a program on this idea:
Do you have a "male" or "female" brain? Are there really significant brain differences between the sexes and if so, do these differences matter? BBC Horizon investigates.
When it comes to the tricky and explosive question of how much, if at all, male and female behaviour is driven by brain differences, Professor Alice Roberts and I sit on different sides of the fence.
I believe that our brains, like our bodies, are shaped by exposure to hormones in the womb and this may help explain why males tend to do better at some tasks (3D rotation), while women tend to do better at others (empathy skills), although there is, of course, an awful lot of overlap and social pressure involved.
Alice, on the other hand, thinks these differences are largely spurious, the result of how the tests are carried out. She worries that such claims may discourage girls from going into science.
The debate between Roberts and Mosley may have been quite good, even wonderful, but I'm not writing about that since I haven't watched it. Instead, I want to write about this advertisement for it by Michael Mosley. Or call it priming?
Yes, it's priming. We are introduced to Mosley's arguments in great detail, from 3D rotation to empathy skills to, later, specific pieces of research. We are not introduced to any of Roberts' arguments, except in the general sense that she believes the differences (all of them?) are largely spurious, based on how the tests are carried out, and worries about girls being discouraged from going into science. Thus, we get one set of arguments in great detail and nothing but vague noises from the other set of arguments. Perhaps this is understandable. Mosley obviously wants to present his point of view as the correct one. But it's important to note how the story is told.
This is particularly important, because the two pieces of research Mosley particularly mentions are pretty controversial ones! He loves the work of Simon Baron-Cohen (the PS to this post is a good explanation why Baron-Cohen's basic theory about what distinguishes the female brain from the male brain is problematic) and he loves the Ingalhalikar et al. brain imaging study (which I covered in some detail here and its reception here and here). To pick those two as examples of solid and sound research on biological sex differences in the brain is a bit shocking.
Mosley likes Baron-Cohen's idea of the female brain as mainly good at empathizing: understanding the emotions of others and relating to them, and the male brain as mainly good at systemizing: the analysis, creation and understanding of systems. If that sounds a bit like the old argument that women are emotional and men are rational, well, it is in the same family. There's no earthly reason why a person cannot be both empathizing and systemizing or (almost) neither*, yet the basic theory treats the two as competing and sex-linked characteristics. And that's why men are more likely to be nerds:
One of the scientists who has most strongly influenced my beliefs is Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University.
He argues that, broadly speaking, there are two different "brain types". There are empathisers, who are good at identifying how other people are thinking or feeling, and there are systemisers, people who are more interested in trying to take apart and analyse systems i.e. people who are a bit nerdy.
We are all a mix of the two, but most of us are more one than the other. Men tend to sit more along the systemising end of the spectrum, women at the empathising end, though there are plenty of exceptions.
Got it? If not, you should go back and re-read the end of this post. Then notice that Mosley, too, interprets empathizing and systemizing as mostly mutually exclusive characteristics.
And created by biology, especially by the amount of testosterone a fetus may have experienced during pregnancy:
But is this simply the product of social conditioning? Professor Baron-Cohen thinks not, that exposure to different levels of hormones in the womb can influence the brain and subsequent behavour. Some of his most intriguing findings have come from on-going research into a large group of children who have been followed from before they were born.
At around 16 weeks gestation, the children's mothers had an amniocentesis test, which involves collecting samples of the fluid that bathes the womb. The researchers measured levels of testosterone in the fluid and have since discovered intriguing links between those levels and behaviour.
"The higher the child's pre-natal testosterone" Professor Baron-Cohen told me, "the slower they were to develop socially. They showed, for example, less eye contact at their first birthday". They also had a smaller vocabulary when they were toddlers and showed less empathy when they were primary school age.
On the other hand he found that being exposed to higher levels of testosterone in the womb seems to enhance some spatial abilities. "Children with higher levels of pre-natal testosterone were faster to find specific shapes hidden within an overall design."